By Karen Isaacs
Houston, Texas. It’s the 1950s. Houston isn’t the modern skyscraper city of tech companies it was to become. Being homosexual was dangerous. Being black was dangerous; Lynchings had occurred recently.
In On the Grounds of Belonging the world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 3, playwright Ricardo Pérez González has fashioned a Romeo & Juliet story for the times. If it at times the play seems a bit obvious and melodramatic, so be it.
One evening, an attractive white woman comes into a black bar. We’ve already learned that the clientele is homosexuals, including the older bartender/manager. Why is she there? She says because the police were raiding the white establishment across the street. But all is not what it seems. The woman is really Tom, a 20-something gay white man who dresses in drag. The bartender (Hugh), one of the patrons (Henry), and the vocalist (Tanya) are pleasant but wary. This is time when all blacks addressed all whites as “sir” or “ma’am” with eyes cast down. Not to do so, was dangerous.
Tom doesn’t pick up on their unease or the conspicuous silence of another patron, Russell, absorbed in a book.
With that set up, what comes next may not be surprising to us, but certainly is to the people involved. Tom is attracted to Russell and seems unaware of the difficulties. Perhaps he is a not a native but we don’t know. Tentatively a romance starts between them. Tis upsets Henry as he is involved with Russell though he also seeks pleasure in multiple places. Occasionally Mooney the actual owner of the bar and the one across the street stops in.. He’s white but he has Hugh manage the bar so that clientele might think it was owned by a black man. But Mooney is definitely in charge and is not pleased that he finds Tom in the bar. Mooney’s bar caters to white gays.
If you can’t foresee trouble ahead, you are not picking up the clues. This love affair is doomed from the start.
On opening night, it was great to feel and hear the involvement of the audience. Some did shout out a comment or two, once even causing the actors playing Russell and Tom to have to control their laughter. But it says something for the work that the audience was that involved.
Few audiences expect a world premiere to be totally finished. On the Grounds of Belonging has had some workshop productions but this is its first fully staged one. On the whole, this is a satisfying play and an excellent production.
Director David Mendizábal has assembled a fine cast. Each of the actors make the most of the roles the playwright has given them and each has added a depth to the role.
Even Mooney, played by Craig Bockhorn, has a back story that partially is revealed and illuminates his fears and sadness though he puts on the “jovial, red-neck” persona. We know less about Hugh the bar manager, but Thomas Silcott lets us into the servile roles that black men had to take on in order to stay alive.
As Tanya, Tracey Conyer Lee is almost a mother figure but she alludes to the demeaning treatment she has endured because of her race. We may not agree with what she says near the end of the play, but she does let us understand it.
These are the “adults” – the older people who are more aware of the realities of the world. Each in some way has been beaten down. So they look on with concern at the doings of the younger men.
Jeremiah Clapp plays Tom. If there is one weakness in the play, it is that we never understand why Tom is so naïve about what could happen and the dangers in the relationship. In some ways, he seems like a visitor from another planet; even in the North, this relationship would not be looked on kindly. Yet Clapp manages to reveal his neediness, loneliness and his certainty.
Henry and Russell as opposites. Yet even here, we don’t know the backstory of these men. Henry is the man of action; confident (or seemingly so), brash and vocal; Russell is quieter and shyer. His emotions are more controlled. Blake Anthony Morris as Henry and Calvin Leon Smith as Russell each draw total portraits of the men. They never telegraph feelings and yet each thing they do seems perfectly in tune with the characters.
Credit for some of that must go Mendizábal, who keeps the pace of the play moving. It is about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. He has helped the actors draw their characters.
For the most part, it is a one set play: the bar with a typical 50s look. The one scene in Russell’s bedroom is handled tastefully. Adding to the effect was the design by Wilson Chin, the lighting by Cha See and the music and sound by Mauricio Escamilla.
This is a disturbing play in many ways; it reminds us that not so long ago, interracial relationships and homosexual relationships could lead to beatings and lynchings. That is a sobering thought.
For tickets visit Long Wharf or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
This content courtesy of Shoreline Publications and zip06.com